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Amharic Service's War Correspondent - 2002-05-06


In addition to being a broadcaster, writer and program host, Mimi Sebhatu is the Amharic Service's premiere war correspondent.

Her colleagues call her Mimi, but her real name is Igigayehou, which, she says, means “I saw the best” in Amharic. She is a petite woman, with enormous eyes, a wide smile, and black curls highlighted blonde. As a VOA reporter, Mimi Sebhatu has found herself on many front lines, most recently when covering the border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

“I was in the eye of the storm, repeated times. I was there for the final offensive, I covered the whole war, the border war. It was dangerous, it was scary. You know, it’s an experience that any journalist would die for, but as a human being it’s an experience that leaves its mark on you. I still see some of the images, they’re still imprinted in my mind.”

Reporting on the war between her native Ethiopia and its neighbor, Mimi Sebhatu says the greatest challenge for her was to keep her emotions at bay.

“Because I’m a human being, I’m watching people from my native country dying or killing, I mean, it’s a war. I have to present my story as objectively, as balanced as possible. The ethics of journalism demands of you to be out of your emotions while doing this kind of story, to be able to separate your feelings and your impressions from what is happening.”

Mimi Sebhatu did not start out to be a journalist. She grew up in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, one of the eight children of a successful landscape architect.

“We had a very privileged childhood, because my dad used to be one of the most prominent businessmen of his time. So we went to some of the best schools in Addis. I grew up learning American nursery rhymes, because our teachers were Americans.”

The Sebhatu family’s lifestyle changed dramatically with the socialist revolution that brought Colonel Mengistu Mariam to power in 1974.

“We had a big horticultural nursery, and we had houses in the city as well, but during the revolution everything was taken, you know, it was nationalized, and it was not a pleasant experience. But my dad was not like landed aristocracy or something, he worked for everything, and he tried to instill in us the value of education. He never spoiled us, we had to earn everything. He said, the only thing I’m giving you is the best education, and that’s it.”

At Addis Ababa University, Mimi Sebhatu studied theatre arts, and after graduation wanted to work as a filmmaker.

“I used to work for the media while I was in college, I used to freelance for the Ethiopian television. But my main focus was film. So after graduation I joined the Ethiopian Film Corporation, which was then, of course, government owned, there was no independent filmmaking. But somehow, you know… I did make a couple of documentaries. One was on the gold mines in the southern part of Ethiopia, and one was a story on the first workers’ movement in Ethiopia, a sort of historical documentary.”

Mimi Sebhatu came to the United States to visit film institutions, as part of a program sponsored by the American Embassy in Addis Ababa. Her first impression of America was that it was very big.

“I’ve seen Europe, I’ve visited a lot of European countries, I was in the former GDR, I was in Czechoslovakia, I was in Bulgaria, I had visited western countries like England, Italy, Greece. So for me, what really struck me in America, it was HUGE.”

Another thing that struck Mimi was how welcoming the people were.

“The first thing – you’re at home, you feel at home in the United States. That’s one of the best parts of America. Everybody from all over the world comes here, and they feel at home. In certain other countries, be it ignorance of other cultures, or whatever, you feel like you’re visiting, like you’re a visitor. But once you step into the United States, it’s like magic, and you feel like you belong.”

While in New York, Mimi was invited by New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts to stay on for a year as a visiting scholar. That year – 1991 -the military dictatorship in Ethiopia was overthrown, and the political uncertainty back home made Mimi decide to remain in the United States. When her year at New York University ended, she applied for a job with the Voice of America in Washington.

“Many of the employees of the Amharic Service I used to know while they were in Ethiopia, and they told me that they were hiring, so I came and I said, well, you want somebody, here I am, and, you know, I took the exam…”

That was ten years ago. Since then, building on her experience in media and film in Ethiopia, Mimi Sebhatu has been a broadcaster, editor and producer in VOA’s Amharic Service. But the highlights of her work are, for her, reporting assignments in Africa. Just three months ago she was the first VOA reporter to be in the capital of Somalia in close to 10 years.

“Oh my God, that was another experience. Just unbelievable. Mogadishu is like a country divided between warlords that control certain areas. It didn’t have any form of normalcy for 10 years. Children didn’t go to school, young boys all have guns, and it’s an amazing experience, like an out-of-body experience, really. So when you’re in the middle of it you think ‘What am I doing here!’ But of course, there’s always a human story. There are people, and there are stories, so I managed to do that.”

Mimi Sebhatu says that her hobby is people, and in the future she wants to continue to be a sort of a bridge between her native Ethiopia and her adopted country, the United States.

English Programs Feature #736254 Broadcast May 6, 2002

Note: In 2002 Mimi Sebhatu left VOA to set up her own broadcasting company back home in Ethiopia.